Tag Archives: winter 2002


Argall by William VollmannWilliam T. Vollmann
Viking ($40)

by Jason Picone

See William Vollmann. His tousled hair complements his still boyish face, which retains a youthful look despite the author's mustache and 40-something-years. Decked out in a well-worn windbreaker that he keeps on for the entire event, Vollmann reads from his latest novel, Argall, the third volume (though fourth to be published) in his acclaimed Seven Dreams series. He selects a passage seemingly at random, then reads it aloud with the diction of an elocutionist. Rarely pausing to look down, Vollmann's eyes move over his audience as he practically recites half a dozen pages about the early history of Captain John Smith. During the Q & A session, an audience member asks the author about his recent journalism assignments. Without a hint of self-consciousness, Vollmann casually mentions that he interviewed the Taliban last year. Inevitably, another individual asks the writer's opinion on current U.S.-Afghan relations; Vollmann replies with a careful, thoughtful answer, but he is reluctant to assert any expertise on the matter.

For a man who has shot off blanks during his readings in order to ensure the audience's attention, Vollmann appears to be an unassuming individual. His apparent modesty may have led him to take the moniker William the Blind, who is ostensibly the narrator of Argall. At first glance, the legendary story at the heart of the Third Dream—the relationship of John Smith and Pocahontas—may appear to be an odd subject for a seven-hundred-page novel, but the instability of the Virginia colony and the role of these two historical figures in its survival is far from straightforward. The intriguing mix of political maneuvering, uneasy peace, and savage conflict between the English and the Native Americans under King Powhatan, Pocahontas's father, lends itself to a fascinating and complex fiction. Under the guise of William the Blind, Vollmann gives an imaginative account of Smith and Pocahontas that never pretends to be historically authoritative. At the beginning of Argall's thorough listing of sources, Vollmann discloses that his

aim in Seven Dreams has been to create a "Symbolic History"—that is to say, an account of origins and metamorphoses which is often untrue based on the literal facts as we know them, but whose untruths further a deeper sense of truth. Here one walks the proverbial tightrope, on one side of which lies slavish literalism; on the other, self-indulgence.

Vollmann's balancing act is impressive and works best when he presents lesser-known historical occurrences or invents possible ones wholesale. In an effort to surmount his humble beginnings as a yeoman, Captain John Smith, also called Sweet John, spent a good deal of his youth as a mercenary in Europe, hoping to win both coin and glory against whatever foe was present. Many have heard of Smith's alleged romance with a foreign princess, but they are thinking of Pocahontas, not the lesser known Turkish woman, Tragabigzanda. Captured by Turks in Europe, Smith was handed over to Tragabigzanda, who promised to marry her English prisoner. Though Smith eventually escaped and journeyed to Virginia, Vollmann speculates that Smith frequently reminisced about his Turkish princess and wondered what his life would have been like had he married her. Tragabigzanda might have given Smith the respectability he longed for, something that even his brief turn at Virginia's presidency failed to provide him with.

But John Smith, struck right away by [Virginia's] marshy noisesome lowness, heard a crying-out from within the mew or cage of his heart, because in running so far and far away he'd ‘scaped not the doom of his birth: here lay the Fens of Lincolnshire all over again—merely warmer and oozier in a rotten stew…

The inflated prose style that Vollmann adopts in his storytelling mirrors not only the Elizabethan form of 400 years ago, but also the considerable ambition of Smith. The political infighting of Jamestown generally left Smith out of favor, but the colony relied heavily on Sweet John to procure supplies by any means necessary, including the outright theft of corn from neighboring Native Americans. The aggressiveness of the English led to Smith's capture and imprisonment by Powhatan and his people, from which, so the story goes, the young Pocahontas dramatically rescued him just as he was about to be executed. Though Vollmann quietly challenges the veracity of this legend in his notes (Pocahontas's rescue of Smith has but one source, Smith himself), the episode gets amazingly short shrift in the novel:

See John Smith. He entreats for his life. Powhatan laughs; his Assassins all snatch Sweet John, & hale him to the stones of execution, no matter how much he struggles & shouts. Draping his withering body across the 1st stone, they slam down his head 'pon the 2nd. . . . See a little squaw come a-darting from Powhatan's side. She wraps her arms about Sweet John's head; she lays her cheek against his. He comprehends nothing.

Despite the content of popular films and books, Smith and Pocahontas did not enjoy a romance, nor were they sexual partners (Pocahontas was but 11 or 12 when she saved Smith). They did enjoy a unique relationship, as each dwelt on the fringes of their respective cultures, daring to become acquainted with the other's language, myths, and conventions. Considering that, at one time or another, the Powhatans and the English each viewed the other as devils sprung from the earth, it is unsurprising that the remarkable cross-cultural exchange between Smith and Pocahontas has been romanticized to the point of unrecognizability. Unlike Smith, who used his knowledge of Powhatan's people against them, the young Pocahontas was simply enamored with Smith and curious about the Tasantasses (the Powhatan word for strangers or white-skins).

Pocahontas's mournful refrain, "love you not me?," is ostensibly asked of Smith, but is also directed at the treacherous English, who kidnapped Pocahontas and married her off to a Englishman. Though she was the bridge between the Powhatans and the English, Pocahontas was ultimately of both peoples and neither:

That peculiarly divided life she'd led, 'twixt her People & the Tasantasses, was resolved fore'er. Sweet John was vanisht. In spite of all her services, the Tasantasses regarded her as a mere victual for their bloody pleasures. She could never number herself amongst them. She was a Salvage, undeniably, without recourse. And whose Salvage was she? . . . Dead alone, like unto a drop of rain draining down within black earth, she collected darkness, washing herself away.

Forcibly married and indoctrinated into Christianity, Pocahontas was moved to England as a kind of circus act. The novel's conscience, she was stripped of her culture and heritage just as surely as her fellow Powhatans were deprived of their lives by Englishmen, including the vicious Captain Samuel Argall.

Argall is Vollmann's most extreme example of English cruelty and depravity. In an era where an Englishman could be called an "Yndian-lover" for sparing one life during a massacre of an entire Native American settlement, Argall's ruthlessness still manages to be remarkable. Unlike Smith, who was motivated by both ambition and an honest desire to see the colony (and thus himself) succeed, Argall is entirely corrupt; he betrays his own countrymen with no more hesitation than when he murdered Powhatan's followers.

Argal, Argoll, Argull! History's instrument, America's votary, Pocahontas's Muster-Master, I already swore you'd die rich! But where are you? What are you? You glimmer, & again you're gone.

Vollmann's usage of spelling variations may appear to be just another case of postmodern wordplay, but a note reveals that every proper name form is taken from an actual historical source. The large number of different "Argall" spellings suggests that historical information on the man conflicted; Vollmann offers three different possible years of birth and death for Argall, lending the figure a phantom-like quality.

Just as air may invisibly contain within it clouds, lightnings, rain, storms, & c, yet shew nothing of itself to our eyes, so euerworthy Argoll doth hum & sweep ubiquitously over all.

The decision to name the Third Dream Argall is a curious one, especially since the novel spends the bulk of its pages on John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Virginia colony. Imagine if Shakespeare had titled his Elsinore episode Fortinbras instead of Hamlet and you get a sense of how odd the choice of Argall is. If known at all, Argall is best remembered for kidnapping Pocahontas, though some might add that he introduced African slaves to North America.

Like the preceding Seven Dreams' novels, Argall is a heavily researched body of work that focuses mostly on the conflicts between North American natives and European colonists. For those readers of the series hoping that Argall signals a return to the chronological publication of the novels (Vollmann published the First Dream, then the Second, then the Sixth, and Argall is the Third), disappointment lies ahead—apparently the Seventh Dream, not the Fourth, is the next volume likely to see publication. Yet unlike most series, there is no need to read Seven Dreams in chronological order, and Argall is as good a place to start as any. William the Blind's compelling recreation of John Smith and Pocahontas is the best known subject matter of any book in the series and is thus the volume most likely to upset a reader's stereotypes concerning the oft-romanticized European settlement of North America.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2001/2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001/2002

Agape Agape

Agape Agape

William Gaddis
Viking ($23.95)

by Vincent Czyz

The first book William Gaddis published, at the age of 32, was his 956-page masterpiece The Recognitions. Unfortunately, reviewers weren't quite ready for a multi-layered work of genius from an author making his literary debut and, one after another, they wrote reviews that were generally incompetent, cribbing both from each other and from the book's flap copy. In fact, the critical ineptitude that surrounded The Recognitions was so flagrant, it inspired a book of its own, Jack Green's riotously incisive Fire the Bastards!

The commercial failure of The Recognitions was largely responsible for the fact that nothing was heard from Gaddis for a full two decades when he reemerged with the publication of JR, for which he won the National Book Award. He took another National Book Award with his fourth book, A Frolic of his Own. Now, four years after Gaddis's death, Viking has released Agape Agape.

"No but you see I've got to explain all this because I don't, we don't know how much time there is left ..." So begins this slender volume of 96 pages (with a 13-page afterword). Although to all appearances complete, there is a sense of urgency in the work all the more compelling for its real-life parallel: Gaddis knew, while writing it, that it was to be the final fiction he would bequeath to the world.

Agape Agape is not so much a novel or even a novella as it is a dramatic monologue in which many of the concerns first expounded in The Recognitions—the question of authenticity in particular—once again surface. The reader is addressed by the voice of an age-ravaged, bed-ridden writer who resembles Gaddis himself in a number of particulars, including an obsession with the player piano.

The player piano? Think of the punched roll of paper that determines which strings are struck as software, and the rest of the piano, which doesn't require anyone to sit at it to produce music, as hardware , and you have the beginnings, in 1876, of the computer. A point of no small significance to the unnamed narrator who insists the player piano is "at the heart of the whole thing, of the frenzy of invention and mechanization and democracy and how to have art without the artist and automation, cybernetics ..."

The player piano, however, is only a point of departure. On a larger scale, the narrator warns of "the collapse of everything, of meaning, of language, of values, of art, disorder and dislocation wherever you look, entropy drowning everything in sight, entertainment and technology and every four year old with a computer, everybody his own artist where the whole thing came from, the binary system and the computer where technology came from in the first place, you see?"

With staples rusting in his leg, and skin "like parchment that's the prednisone, turns the skin into dry old parchment," it seems the narrator is becoming the paper that was his medium—which strikes a note of irony since the narrator suggests that Glenn Gould "wanted to be the Steinway because he hated the idea of being between Bach and the Steinway because if he could be the Steinway he wouldn't need Glenn Gould..." While the rambling, run-on rhythm of his soliloquy suggests senility, it is, in fact, an entrancing kaleidoscope in which motifs and concepts—the artist demoted to entertainer, the cheapening of the arts through technological reproduction, the wasting of talent and "the self who could do more"—appear, reappear, merge and mutate. When, for example, the narrator conflates apparently disparate topics ("Over fifty thousand out there waiting for these organ transplants, the first interchangeable parts made for guns by this same Eli Whitney two hundred years ago getting a little but mixed up here...") Gaddis is, in actuality, artfully tying them together.

The voice roves from the innovations of Willard Gibbs, who "showed us the tendency for entropy to increase...when he pulled the rug out from under Newton's compact tightly organized universe with his papers on statistical physics in 1876," (the same year, oddly enough, the player piano hit the scene) to Philo T. Farnsworth's first public demonstration of television; from Plato's Republic from which the artist was banished to Flaubert's elitist view of the masses as a contemptible, detestable herd.

By turns nostalgic, frustrated, bitter and howlingly funny, Gaddis's narrator most often reaches the pitch of a shrill lament: "Authenticity's wiped out when the uniqueness of every reality is overcome by the acceptance of its reproduction, so art is designed for its reproducibility."

Here Gaddis returns to one of his lifelong themes, the false democratization of art, in which, technology, like a minor god intoxicated with powers not of creation but of recreation, has flooded the world with cheap imitations, whether they be concertos translated into holes punched in a paper roll and played by "phantom hands" or "The Mona Lisa and the Last Supper reduced to calendar art to hang over the kitchen sink."

Hand in hand with this degradation of art comes the eviction of the artist, who is a threat because he doesn't conform; he is that element of the irrational, the bit of entropy that cannot be purged from the machine. Ironically, the very "technology the artist created" is being used against him "and the piano, the player piano and its offspring the computer barricades against this fear of chance, of probability and indeterminacy that's so American ..."

Gaddis, however, intimates that there is a loss greater than that of either the artist or art and that is the loss of self, "the self who could do more." In a culture of mass production and reproduction in which even human body parts are becoming interchangeable, the "individual is lost, the unique is lost...authenticity is lost not just authenticity but the whole concept of authenticity."

Throughout the book we come across quotes from a repertoire of thinkers and scientists as if their words were found objects glued to the canvas of a painting; among the quotes is this one from a Tolstoy short story: "...music carries you off into another state of being that's not your own, of feeling things you don't really feel, of understanding things you don't really understand, of being able to do things you aren't really able to do..." By the time you've read the last line of Agape Agape, it is clear that literature, in the hands of someone like William Gaddis, has precisely this effect.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2002/2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002/2003

Some Of The Parts

Some Of The PartsT Cooper
Akashic Books ($14.95)

by David Lenson

I have a fondness for gender-bender books, so when I picked up Some of the Parts and met the first of its four protagonists—a woman named Isak whose gender is so indeterminate that she briefly joins a carnival in a guess-what-it-is act—I was good to go. What I had not anticipated is that the placement of this incident so early in the novel is a way of putting the cards on the table, and asking the reader to start thinking about elements of character that are, believe it or not, more important and fascinating than gender or any other conventional signpost.

The other three protagonists also have "salient facts" for the reader to get past. Arlene is a divorced shop-owner in Rhode Island, popping pills to forget her departed husband. Her daughter Taylor, a former high-school soccer star, is so crippling attractive to both men and women that she is dwindling into general incompetence. And Charlie, Arlene's brother, Taylor's uncle, and Isak's roommate, has AIDS. Even the male dog is named Mary.

Cooper's rich character development arises from the struggle to transcend the typicality of her protagonists. Their complex relationships draw some together and strew some apart. The novel has, at first, a centrifugal motion as Isak and Taylor flee to California to escape, where they are drawn together in a vexed and surprising way. Charlie decides to go live with Arlene, as his medical condition becomes more restrictive, and slowly but surely a centripetal pull draws everybody to Providence, a delicate and providential place at last.

All these partial characters are, as the title goes, some of the parts, but not their sum. Cooper never takes the easy way out, and her moving conclusion is fragile, and for that reason beautiful. Her triumph is to have created flawed but vital creatures who live and behave within the fiction, rather than being over-determined by it. Each comes to reject a life of typing and restriction, even in the absence of any easy formula for fulfillment. It is the world of a new millennium, a place where right and wrong, blood and affinity, flight and homecoming must all be remapped as if history has abandoned us. This stellar first novel suggests that T Cooper could be the right cartographer for this strange place.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2002/2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002/2003

You Shall Know Our Velocity

9780970335555Dave Eggers
McSweeny's Books ($22)

by Clarence Thrun

The first thing you'll notice about the dust jacketless You Shall Know Our Velocity is that the opening paragraph is printed on the cover of the book, and continues on the inside without a break. Flipping through the pages, looking for more enticements, you'll be rewarded by tiny color photos slipped in amidst the text, photos taken, for the most part, by the author while he traveled around the world "researching" the book. Okay, I'll admit it sounds a little artsy, but somehow it works—there's a rich story here, and anyway a little art never killed anybody.

Beneath the shenanigans, Dave Eggers' second book is a road novel, plain and simple, and with a weak-sounding premise at that: A man falls into more money then he thought he'd ever have at one time; he's only loosely earned it and is overwhelmed with guilt about having it, so he does what anybody would do: he takes a one week trip around the world with his obnoxious best friend, stopping in as many poor countries as possible to give the money away to the natives. Hi-jinks follow, of course. In the wrong hands this would be a painful short story, so imagine it as a 371-page novel. But Eggers has a flair for taking simple ideas and making them sound so important that you cannot help but believe in them—or at least believe that the characters believe in them:

We stood outside in the cooling black night, and wondered if we could do anything extraordinary. If we could live up to our responsibility here: We had traveled 4,200 miles or whatever and thus were obligated to create something. We had to take the available materials and make something worthy.

How does Eggers pull it off? In a way he lived it. Published by his own McSweeny's Books, You Shall Know Our Velocity is the follow up to his very successful first book, A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius. A highly personal memoir beneath its antics, Heartbreaking became a phenomenon, one that no doubt enabled Eggers to blow a little money of his own. So he does what anybody would do: he creates an upstart publishing house that distributes unusually inexpensive hardcover books and radically innovative anthology magazines via the Internet, the occasional rock concert, and a few hand-picked, independent book stores, where the literary natives may indeed begin to feel lucky.

The amazing thing is that the business, like the prose, actually works. Eggers understands that you don't need chain bookstores and Amazon-sized websites to be taken seriously. He's managed to mix pop and politics in a perfect way, opening doors that most people never knew were there. In a time when most independent films are released by Disney and scores of indie-rock bands are on Warner Brothers, it's nice to see a young writer taking an ethical stance and being rewarded for it. It's for this reason that only two books in, Dave Eggers may be one of the most important writers of our time.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2002/2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002/2003

Himalayan Dhaba

Himalayan Dhaba by Craig Joseph DannerCraig Joseph Danner
Dutton ($23.95)

by H. E. Everding

Surrounded by the soaring Himalayas in a remote town of Northern India—"a couple of alleyways and market stalls"—Himchall Mission Hospital lures geriatric internist Mary Davis to volunteer her services. Her husband Richard, recently killed in a bicycle accident, had worked there briefly twelve years ago as a surgeon and dreamed of returning. Yet upon arriving in the mountains Mary finds Doctor Vikram Vergeela has left to take care of his gravely ill father, leaving Mary the massive General Practice Guidelines for the Rural District Hospital, a few barely trained nurses, and a message—"I'll be back in a month or so. The hospital depends on you."

Author Craig Joseph Danner, who with his wife practiced medicine in a similar hospital in the Himalayas, displays his detailed medical knowledge and vocabulary in describing how Mary copes with cases such as a dying baby girl ("she hasn't a clue what's wrong"), successful and unsuccessful births, operations on a man's perforated bowel and a child's brain. More intriguing, however, are the intertwining and unfolding relationships of the characters he introduces at the hospital and the café, the Himalayan Dhaba of the title. Except for Mary, who provides the novel's continuity, these characters fade in, come to life in humorous and tragic episodes, and fade out.

In the dhaba, an ancient hippie slips "charas" (hash) to a young blond traveler who is later attacked at "the club" and left with a broken neck. Doctor Mary treats the young invalid, a Brit named Phillip Glaston Davenport, but as she calls the British embassy in Delhi to request an ambulance, the ancient hippie overhears the conversation and comes to full life as Antone, who plans to kidnap Phillip for a ransom. In his broken-down jeep he takes Phillip to an alternate town, but on his way back through the pass to collect the cash, his jeep dies and he nearly freezes to death in a snow storm. In the book's final chapter, "The End," Mary is alone on a rock reminiscing and is approached by "an old man in a ragged shirt, a Kullu hat and plastic shoes." The old man says a simple word—"charas?"-and leaves when Mary declines. Thus Antone fades out, but Phillip, who appears nameless before Mary in the form of a sadhu, has the last word in the story: "I think my neck is better now."

Anyone who has lived or trekked in the Himalayas will resonate with Himalayan Dhaba. I did so with the first of many dilemmas Mary encounters after her long journey to Himachal Pradesh. She enters the dhaba to ask a waiter—yet another seemingly minor character who becomes intrinsically linked with Mary—to use the toilet:

He points her to a closet that smells like an open septic tank—ripping at her belt she barely gets her pants down fast enough. The only light comes through a tiny window high up over head, and there isn't any toilet but a hole cut in the concrete floor. She's focusing on balance, trying to keep her pants up off the ground—horrified she'll tumble over, unsure where she's supposed to aim. At last her bladder's letting down, her feet not quite spread wide enough; her passport safe around her waist now jabbing in her pancreas. She'd made a promise to herself she wouldn't cry for two more days...

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2002/2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002/2003

after the quake

after the quake by Haruki MurakamiHaruki Murakami
Translated by Jay Rubin
Knopf ($21)

by Emily Johnston

For Americans, the first sentence of Haruki Murakami's recent book of short stories, after the quake, plumbs a sudden and surprising well of feeling: "Five straight days she spent in front of the television, staring at crumbled banks and hospitals, whole blocks of stores in flames, severed rail lines and expressways." The six stories in the book take place in the months immediately following the 1995 Kobe earthquake and previous to the poison gas attacks on the Tokyo subway. As the characters hover between natural disaster and terroristic threats, their usual fragility and isolation take on a new poignancy, and with skill and grace Murakami explores what effect such a profoundly disturbing event has on people who are already adrift.

Each character, of course, is affected differently, and many stumble into a state of emotional crisis without even understanding why they feel so vulnerable. In "ufo in kushiro", the story opens as Komura's wife, after five days of watching coverage of the earthquake's horror, leaves him. She explains, "The problem is that you never give me anything. Or, to put it more precisely, you have nothing inside you that you can give me...living with you is like living with a chunk of air." Like many of Murakami's characters, Komura is almost perfectly passive, distant from both the world and his own emotions. Sent on a mysterious mission to distant, cold Hokkaido, he meets a woman who asks him if what his wife said was true. He replies, "'I'm not sure...I may have nothing inside me, but what would something be?'" Moments later, she provokes in him a moment of violent rage, pure feeling—and in doing so shows him that there is indeed something inside him.

Other characters' lives, having less connection, require a catharsis based in fantasy. Katagiri, the protagonist of "super-frog saves tokyo," catalogues his barren life to the giant frog that surprises him in his apartment, asking for his help in saving Tokyo from a rage-filled giant worm: "I'm an absolutely ordinary guy. Less than ordinary. I'm going bald, I'm getting a potbelly, I turned forty last month...Why should a person like me have to be the one to save Tokyo?" Frog seems to speak for the author, and not just ironically, when he replies, "Because, Mr. Katagiri, Tokyo can only be saved by a person like you. And it's for people like you that I am trying to save Tokyo." It is the lost who need saving, and Murakami reminds us of this comically and without sentimentality.

The Kobe disaster wakes these dazed characters, but not immediately. On the plane to Hokkaido, Komura reads coverage of the quake and thinks of his wife, "Why had she followed the TV earthquake reports with such intensity, from morning to night, without eating or sleeping? What could she have seen in them?" She has seen, of course, that everything can disappear in an instant, and she has begun to understand what this means to her life. Her leaving forces the same primal awareness on Komura.

Murakami's characters seldom act until they have been forced to this edge. This isn't because they're complacent—they're either thoroughly unhappy or quietly, uncomplainingly, but nevertheless dramatically unfulfilled. But they are inured to this, and feel utterly unable to change anything. When the quake comes, though, the emotional ground beneath them opens up too, and this changes them profoundly. They feel a powerful drive for connection, as in one character's realization that "right now I have to stay here and keep watch over this woman and this girl...even if the sky should fall or the earth crack open with a roar." Because they know now that it can.

Murakami has always been a keen and sensitive chronicler of the isolation that modern life can bring. The great surprise for his characters in these rich stories is that they are a part of the world, alive and vulnerable—and that they want to be.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2002/2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002/2003

farewells to plasma

farewells to plasma by Natasza GoerkeNatasza Goerke
Translated by W. Martine
Twisted Spoon Press ($14.00)

by Laird Hunt

Halfway through Polish writer Natasza Goerke's new collection of stories, farewells to plasma, a toenail blithely asserts that "monstrosity is an important issue." Immersed in Goerke's wonderfully disconcerting world of marriageable she-bears, writers who choke to death on egg yolks, and a charming couple called the Zeroes, the reader doesn't miss a beat and wants to hear more. The toenail, shut up inside a locket, obliges. It holds forth on plagues, it blushes, it scratches its head. Yet it is a completely plausible element in Goerke's through-the-cracked-looking-glass sensibility, an instance of 3-D synecdoche that blares absence and bespeaks troubled love: key themes in Goerke's universe. As she ends the story "Zoom":

So what to do with them all? If what keeps them apart is what joins them together, they still won't be able to get close to each other.

But they won't be able to get away from each other either.

Love and absence are at the heart of farewells to plasma, but they are not alone: Goerke's palette is too broad, her energies too various, for the collection to be so easily pigeon-holed. Goerke writes with verve on all shape and variety of topics. Her characters are travelers, fortune tellers, masochists, talking shadows. They are concerned with the difficulties of reality, of communication, of self-assertion. The fictional matrices they are conjured in tend to be short, oddly and cleverly crafted, both pragmatic and dreamy, and crackling with energy. The result is an absurdist-inflected brand of magical realism, akin in its fusion of homegrown and international (often Western, often American) culture and concerns to that set out in the shorter works of Haruki Murakami.

Part of the credit for the effectiveness of farewells to plasma, which presents a representative selection from three of Goerke's earlier collections, must go to its translator, W. Martin. He has turned the original Polish into pitch-perfect English, giving us a loose-limbed prose fully capable of handling Goerke's typically complex, off-kilter blend of emotion, action and imagery, as in the opening of one of the longer stories in the collection, "dog":

Clouds were blocking the sun, and Denisa, who was strolling along with all the grace of an open wound, picked up a stick off the ground and threw it as far as her strength would allow.

Goerke, who was born and raised in Poland and currently resides in Germany, is widely considered in Europe to be one of the most exciting young writers working today. If enough people this side of the Atlantic get their hands on farewells to plasma, that sentiment will soon find itself shared.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2002/2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002/2003

The Big Snow

David Park
Bloomsbury ($24.95)

by Peter Ritter

“The snow was general all over Ireland,” Joyce wrote in “The Dead.” And so it is in David Park's The Big Snow, a work, which, though set in Ulster in 1963, shares more than atmospheric conditions with Joyce's celebrated novella. Here is the mood of muffled and inchoate longing; the stinging exposure of lives stunted by provincialism; and the evocation of a pre-modern Irish landscape, which, with its “dark central plain and treeless hills,” seems to be dissolving even as it unfolds.

In form, The Big Snow is less a traditional novel than a series of vignettes connected by gossamer filaments of theme and tone. The snow, symbolic of stasis in "The Dead," here becomes a catalytic force akin to the apocryphal Santa Ana winds of Southern California, loosening inhibitions and blurring social strictures. In "Against the Cold," for instance, a comically prudish middle-aged school master finds unlikely refuge from the blizzard in the house of a female colleague. As the night wears on and the snow piles up outside, the two begin an achingly tentative courtship. "Special circumstances," the teacher reasons to himself as they finally embrace: "the unexpected welcoming flicker of lights in distant windows, the promise of rest and shelter."

Elsewhere, the snow becomes a symbol of suffocating isolation: A man whose wife has died during the storm longs to confess an ancient infidelity; an old maid, half-crazed with loneliness, scours the snow-bound city for a perfect wedding dress. In "Snow Trails," a vignette with shades of Joyce's "Araby," a shopkeeper's son finds himself irresistibly drawn to a sophisticated married woman who flits briefly through his rural village. He, like Joyce's narrator, sees in her the possibility of escape from the banality of his lot. When an accident of the weather strands him in the woman's manor house, he finds himself eavesdropping on her lovemaking, listening to "her voice fluttering like the silken wings of a moth and coming closer all the time to the core of the flame." The story's climax—pun intended—recalls Leopold Bloom's infamous seaside interlude in Ulysses.

The final story in The Big Snow, a sinuous police-procedural set in Belfast, seems at first to strike a discordant note with these finely modulated tone poems. In it, a young, idealistic constable named Swift—an homage, certainly, to another great Irish wit—is drawn into a murder investigation after discovering an anonymous woman's body. As Swift lurches through the back alleys and sectarian haunts of Belfast, the ubiquitous snow casts its spell: "All around him the city was transformed into something only partly recognizable. Familiar landscapes were smoothed and rendered indistinguishable and everywhere a great weight of white pressed down on the buildings, and the snow had a shiny brilliance to it that the grime of the city had been unable to consume."

If this closing novella seems at odds with the muted emotion of the book's earlier stories, it does share with the rest of The Big Snow an acute sensitivity to human fragility. In this, the timbre of Park's work most closely resembles the elegiac swoon which concludes "The Dead"—an image of snow "falling through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end."

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2002/2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002/2003

Some of Her Friends That Year: New and Selected Stories

Some of Her Friends That Year by Maxine ChernoffMaxine Chernoff
Coffee House Press ($16.95)

by Chris Semansky

A master of indirection and irony, attitude and empathy, poet and fiction writer Maxine Chernoff charts the inscrutable and the mundane in Some of Her Friends That Year: New and Selected Stories. Thick with allusions to popular culture, these stories attempt to illustrate what happens when characters, mostly women, love too much.

The title story—one of fifteen new pieces added to selections from her two previous collections, Bop and Signs of Devotion—describes the unnamed main character by chronicling what happens to her friends over the course of one year in a list of thirteen short, numbered sections: one writes a bestseller, another has her first baby at forty-nine, another one's cancer returns, and so on—the stuff of life. As in many of the stories in the collection, meaning doesn't develop so much as accrue, the sheer weight of events greasing the way for the main character's epiphany. In the last section, the narrator provides it, summing up this character's attitude towards others: "she knew how everyone felt, that their lives were somehow hers... that she wasn't happy as long as someone else was suffering."

There's plenty of suffering in these stories, from jilted wives to disillusioned Russian immigrants to emotionally exhausted middle-aged couples seeking to renew their love. Many of the stories point toward a moral. In "Jealousy," for example, a couple whose marriage becomes strained after they put their money in stocks meets a quadriplegic whose aide has abandoned her. Cuddling that night with her husband, the wife muses, "Maybe helplessness is all we need for a life we can bear. Maybe all we have to do is ask to share it." As much about redemption as suffering, Chernoff's stories sometimes skirt perilously close to preachiness, her martyr-like narrators hammering home the same point again and again about the redemptive capacity of love. The short sketch "Nobel Prize for Shoes" charts the emotional life of a woman who contemplates the idea of happiness while enduring her husband's philandering ways and petty demands. "Her dreams are always about responsibilities to others," readers are told, a description that applies to many of the female narrators here.

The well-pocked road of middle age forms the backdrop for almost every story: disappointment and betrayal, the daily compromises of marriage, diminishing expectations, and always relentless nostalgia weaving its way through all interactions. In "Jeopardy," 40-year-old Maggie calls her octogenarian mother to ask if she remembers playing with Saul Bellow when she was a child, having just learned Bellow grew up on the same street as her family. The mother doesn't, but concocts a story about comforting the young Bellow after his mother had died. Full of wit and warmth, the exchange between mother and daughter illustrates how memory and desire help shape the complexities of trans-generational love, and of storytelling itself.

One startling offering, "We Kill What We Love," presents a familiar story in a new vein. Like television's popular cop drama, Law and Order, Chernoff takes a story from the headlines and adapts it to her needs. In a series of short, compressed sections that resemble a journalist's notes and include titles such as "Definitions" and "Actions," Chernoff analyzes the relationship between O. J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson from its inception to its tragic end. In story after story, Chernoff ferrets meaning from popular culture, showing how individuals are stamped with history, destroyed and saved by love.

Although many of her themes and "plots"—some of her stories are little more than character sketches—are conventional, Chernoff lards her writing with details of twentieth-century American life, especially television shows and celebrities. References to John Belushi, David Letterman, Jeopardy, Saturday Night Live, and Harry Reasoner are so numerous as to constitute another character, a presence reminding readers not only of the fictive nature of her own stories, but of the fictive nature of the world from which they derive. Regardless of the familiarity of many of the situations and themes, Chernoff's details and her unerring sense of the (mis)directions of the human heart make hers a compelling voice.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2002/2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002/2003

Astro Boy: Volumes One through Six

Osamu Tezuka
Dark Horse Comics ($9.95 each)

by Tosh Berman

On a trip in Osaka, Japan in 1989, I made a point of visiting the Tezuka Museum to see original artwork by Osamu Tezuka, the creator of Astro Boy. Not being able to read Japanese, I became seduced by Tezuka's drawings of a robot boy flying through a 21st-century city that resembles Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Now reading through the series of volumes in translation, I am even more struck by the beauty of Tezuka's bittersweet vision of the future, as well as its horror.

Osamu Tezuka was born in Osaka in 1928. He was raised in Takarazuka, which is also famous for its all-female theatrical troop, and graduated from the Medical Department of Osaka University, but gave up medicine to draw manga, or cartoons. Tezuka is perhaps the first great artist who created manga that could be enjoyed by adults as well as children. Eventually, he started a company that produced the first cartoon TV show in Japan, which was of course Astro Boy.

Tezuka spent his childhood watching films, drawing, and most tellingly, observing insects. He developed a respect for the inner-world of the little creepy-crawlies, and was alarmed when certain insects started to disappear as cities began to dominate the countryside. Since then ecology has been a major theme in his work, second only to the relationship between human beings and robots. Tezuka makes intense observations on the nature of humans and their need to make machines that resemble, if not exactly, themselves.

Astro Boy made his appearance in a Japanese magazine in 1951, six years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed. In the story, a scientist named Dr. Tenma creates the robot in the likeness of his son Tobio, recently killed in a car accident. In the Doctor's words, "It'll be a Robot unlike any other in the world. It'll be modern science's supreme work of art!" adding touches such as "pleasure circuits to create a happy expression" on Astro Boy's face. Thus is born Tetsuwan Atom—literally "Mighty Atom," though it was translated into English as "Astro Boy," a more mellifluous but ultimately poor choice because the character has nothing to do with outer space.

After a while Dr. Tenma forgets that his replacement son is a robot, except when he notices that the robot is not growing like a little boy. Realizing that this "Tobio" will never grow up, the hateful and disappointed Doctor gives up Astro Boy to a robot circus. Luckily, Professor Ochanomizu sees Tenma's creation at the circus and realizes that this is no ordinary robot. Ochanomizu drags our hero out of robot hell, and through his kindness he teaches the robot boy to fly, speak sixty languages, and best yet, how to sense whether people are good or bad (welcome additions to his 100,000-horse power strength and the machine guns attached to his rear end). He no longer exists as Tobio the robot slave but as Astro Boy, everybody's friend.

Underpinning the Astro Boy stories is the "robot law," which states that the two main rules are "robots exists to make people happy" and "robots shall not injure or kill humans." In the first story in Volume One, Tezuka—who puts himself in the stories to make rather interesting commentary—puts forward the ideas that if we "substitute the word 'science' for 'robot' in the first article of the robot law, I wonder if our science-based civilization has really made people any happier..."

Most of the stories in the series deal with the conflicts between humans and robots. Tezuka's utilization of the concept of robots serves to expose the narcissistic trait in humans: Robots are machines, but somehow we have decided to build these machines after our likeness. Throughout robot literature, artists and authors have made robots to resemble human beings, and what is worse, to possess human qualities. In his work, Tezuka even invented robot "parents" and a little sister so that Astro Boy wouldn't be lonely. But underlying this status-quo family plan is the question: Why must we create machines that look and act human?

Set in 2003, Tezuka's Astro Boy stories are eerily prescient in theme if not in fact. Just as citizens of his fictional future came to the conclusion that life doesn't start only by the sexual act, but can also be created in the laboratory, we must deal with the same realization via cloning. At the heart of the dilemma is the impulse to love what we create, even though a robot made in our image and invested with our passions may really be desired for the purpose of doing all our human dirty work.

With one leg in the human camp and the other in the robot community, Astro Boy is the symbol for a tension that is relevant today. Generally his loyalty is with the robots—how can he not help but not "feel" something for his fellow robots—but the irony is that humans built these feelings within Astro Boy. It is almost heartbreaking to meditate on certain images in Tezuka's manga, such as the round eyes of Astro Boy, looking out onto the world with such sad and useless hope. Similarly the fight scenes in Astro Boy are more sad than angry or heroic or cathartic; the characters already feel regret for destruction and loss of life before entering the battle.

Tezuka's complex vision of 2003 shows us what humanity we humans have lost in the name of progress. His Astro Boy is thus best read as a parable about regaining this humanity, or at the very least, not blowing the second chances that fortune might bring our way.

Click here to purchase Astro Boy, Vol. 1 at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2002/2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002/2003